Oberlin Blogs

Cross-College Comparisons: Caltech

June 6, 2010

Tess Yanisch ’13

The past few days, I've been visiting a friend of mine at Caltech (officially the California Institute of Technology, though I don't think anyone ever really calls it that). Caltech starts late--almost in October--and doesn't get out until mid-June, which means I got a chance to come visit while school is still in session and observe Techers in their natural habitat. It's difficult to compare two colleges, but I will attempt it here. Basically, Caltech is--different.

Perhaps the most noticeable difference, at least to me, is that people talk about their classes and homework a lot more here than at Oberlin. This is in part due to the fact that all freshmen take the same core classes, so it's "something you always have in common with everyone else," as my friend put it, and everyone really loves "talking shop." But also, classes here are a lot more all-consuming than classes at Oberlin.

This is not to say that Oberlin's classes are easy; they're not (mostly). But the time commitment is definitely less insane, plus you usually take fewer classes per term. This frees up a lot of time for out-of-class experimentation. Caltech doesn't have ExCos, a circus, or several dozen performing arts troupes (though they do have an improv group, apparently). They have one weekly paper, The Tech--we have the weekly Oberlin Review, the biweekly Grape, and the online Fearless and Loathing and The Raisin. We have lots of sports, including Quidditch; Caltech doesn't have Quidditch, but their football team has gone undefeated since 1993, because it doesn't exist. (Although, to be honest, Obies are often surprised to remember that we have a football team.)

I'm not being competitive here. I'm just pointing out differences. Oberlin has a lot more room built in for extracurricular exploration. Caltech is very intensely focused on academics, on a particular area of study. There are advantages to each method. One way you get a lot of academic diversity; the other, a lot of detail and depth and a more focused approach, and a student body with more homogeneous interests. It's notoriously fast-paced, but the first two terms (there are three terms in a year) for freshmen at Caltech are always pass/fail so people don't panic about grades. Apparently, most of the class would otherwise be dealing with getting Ds for the first time in their lives. As a compulsive overachiever, I am afraid.

So Caltech is intense. It's also, well, all tech. Listening to people talk about their classes and homework, I understand about one-tenth of what they're saying. Hanging out with my bio- and chem-major friends at Oberlin, I can generally figure out the gist of a conversation. Physics and, more befuddling, pure math are really a bit beyond me at this point. (I'm pretty knowledgeable, really, but my knowledge of quantum physics is mostly drawn from SF books and movies and Wikipedia, and I haven't even had regular calculus, much less multi-variable calculus or linear algebra.) But I can pick up on their enthusiasm; everyone here understands this stuff, more or less, and is really interested in it. I say good for them. And better them than me.

However, don't get the idea that Caltech is all work and no play. Almost all problem sets are collaborative, so there's a lot of social interaction fostered by the setup itself, and people seem to have fun with their homework. The housing situation is also interesting.

Students live in one of eight Houses. Most of these used to be fraternities, if I recall correctly; eventually, most of the Caltech student body was living in frats, so the College bought them all out and made Houses. They still each have very individual characteristics. There's a stereotype for each house; Dabney people (Darbs), for instance, are considered to be all hippies. (A rough parallel to Harkness, I think, although the distinction between "hipsters" and "hippies" is a topic for another blog.) And people from Avery are called "slaves" because their stereotype is that they work all the time. (My Oberlin analogy: double-degree students.) There's a lot of house pride/interhouse rivalry, but it's mostly for fun, as far as I can tell.

As far as I can tell, Houses are a lot like the co-ops at Oberlin, except you don't make your own food. Houses have elected officers, rooms seem to be divided up mostly by the students themselves, and each House organizes a big interhouse party every year. Houses get money for projects of various sorts--Dabney has a ball pit in their lounge.

An interesting story: several of the houses are in the same compound, a single large building two or three stories tall. It's excessively difficult to navigate because the man who designed it was, as my friend put it, "bat-shit insane." The hallways are very short--they cut off after ten or fifteen yards and twist. Almost every twist is accompanied by a few stairs leading up or down. Apparently, because of this, no two hallways are on quite the same level. This is because the designer was convinced that gremlins would get him if the hallways were longer or more level.

Goofiness also comes from Ditch Day. I know a little about this tradition. Historically, the seniors would all ditch classes on a certain day toward the end of term. The underclassmen took advantage of this to break into their rooms and prank them (intricately; apparently some people once took someone's car apart, carried the pieces into his room, and reassembled it there). Then the seniors began blocking their doors, either physically or with "stacks" of tasks to accomplish before entry was permitted--all on the honor system. People stick to the Honor Code at Caltech--all finals are take-home, closed-book, and on a time limit, and people don't cheat. Frankly, it puts Oberlin to shame.

Anyway, since then it appears to have evolved into a highly organized problem-solving event. This year there was a Lord of the Rings stack that involved scaling a twelve-foot wall of ice; an Ocean's Eleven one that sent the underclassmen to Las Vegas; and a Legend of Zelda one that gave everyone swords and shields. Again, this puts Oberlin to shame. I must and shall revive Oberlin's weirdness quotient upon my return--Ohio, watch out!

Anyway, the visit was an exciting and pleasant one, full of fun and sunshine. (I want to move Oberlin to Southern California; how difficult can it be to airlift a small Midwestern town and relocate it 2,000 miles away?) I observed many differences between Oberlin and Caltech, but I think people at both schools really love being there and get deeply into the culture. If you're a prospie on the fence between Oberlin and Caltech--which I'll admit is unlikely--I hope this post has helped you.

Next week: $50,000 summer jobs, i.e., paying for Oberlin.

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